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Gender-Bending The Bard with The Shrews Present 'Untameable'
by Sean Margaret Wagner
2019-03-28

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The Shrews Improvisation collective has come a long way since its initial run, which was spearheaded by founders Lindsay Gonzales and Claudia Alpert.

They shoved furniture aside, and performed to audiences packed in Gonzales' living room in 2018. Their idea of an inclusive ensemble composed of female, trans or non-binary members drew members like Caitlin Robb to take part. "I went to see a show with the Improvised Shakespeare Company at the iO Theater and really wanted to audition, but at the time, women weren't considered, so I was really excited when The Shrews came together on social media," said Robb.

The troupe's original founders have left the ensemble in the capable hands of a solid core of members who fundraise, host readings and are now producing its second show on a Second City stage, entitled Untameable. Lizzie Cross—a performer since the initial living-room run—also acts as the group's producer and treasurer. "This ensemble is so supportive, we make each other funnier," Cross told Windy City Times. "It's hard to put into words why this one of the most special things I do with my time and energy, but it is."

The interesting thing about a Shrews team rehearsal is that it can take on many forms depending on who leads it. They've studied the histories of Norman-era European monarchs and beyond, with Shrews ensemble member Julia Williams teaching. "We didn't rehearse at all last week, it was just a giant history lesson that I led. I was terrified that it was going to be dry, and it wasn't going to go well, but it gave us a dozen sketch ideas," said Williams. They've also gone over the use of songs in Shakespeare plays with member Erin Caswell, and a crash course in verb conjugation with member Karolyn Blake, an expert on determining the 'doth' most appropriate for your subject and tense.

Ensemble members run rehearsals, direct scenes and lead their fellow improvisors in exercises over a rehearsal period that spans months to accommodate as many performers as possible. "The Shrews takes all of the disparate parts of of my theater career and combines them into one project, with a group of people who are extremely dedicated to inclusion in the arts," said ensemble member Jessica Landis. Member Chrissy McGonagle brings her expertise in character development to help the ensemble create dozens of personalities, telling Windy City Times, "I focus a lot on character work. I love this idea that you can actually create these characters on your own, at home, and bring them into an improv scene."

Newer member Erin Caswell loves the challenge of playing to a rowdier, improv audience. "I always enjoy bringing Shakespeare to populations who think it's intimidating or fancy, because in Shakespeare's day, the commoners came too. Mostly to stand around and make fun of the actors. There was no shortage of crude jokes or sex jokes," said Caswell.

Once there's a trove of character names, intentions, phrases and professions to draw from, according to longtime ensemble member Grace Snider, "Shakespeare is approachable. We are a blended, inclusive group of members that are female and non-binary, and we want people from all walks of life to feel comfortable with us." Snider credited the leaders of the ensemble for being supportive of all who join and allowing everyone a stake in ownership.

By nature of inviting everyone outside of cisgender men to the table, scenes and character work turn the idea of the historic all-male Shakespeare cast on its ear. It gives performers a chance to break out of their usual type, and gives room for more queer viewpoints, more feminist viewpoints, and more activist viewpoints to color their storylines. The work isn't just smart, it's actively trying to reverse misogyny, dismissiveness, and problematic plots in Shakespeare's source material.

The inclusiveness doesn't stop at the ensemble, either. Core members put charitable donations to work to begin outreach to the differently abled community and provide sign-language interpretation for a number of shows in the upcoming run. There are plans to bring child-care options to future productions, and it was just announced that The Shrews will be bringing its productions to the open-air setting of Chicago public parks this summer.

"I hope our audiences have a good time, and I hope they open their minds to what a hero or a villain can look like, or what the capabilities of performers could be," Landis said. "I hope we plant a seed that it is okay to have a non-traditional ingenue, or maybe a goofy sidekick that is incredibly attractive." Williams added, "I want people to walk away excited to come back to see our next show. I want them to see that women and non-binary people can also play in Shakespearean settings. Anyone can."

The Shrews Present Untameable runs Thursdays through April 25, at 8:30 p.m., at the Blackout Cabaret at Piper's Alley, 230 W. North Ave., second floor. For tickets and more information, visit SecondCity.com .


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